#Review #TheWonder #EmmaDonoghue

The Wonder

An eleven-year-old girl stops eating, but remains miraculously alive and well. A nurse, sent to investigate whether she is a fraud, meets a journalist hungry for a story. 

Set in the Irish Midlands in the 1850s, Emma Donoghue's The Wonder - inspired by numerous European and North American cases of 'fasting girls' between the sixteenth century and the twentieth - is a psychological thriller about a child's murder threatening to happen in slow motion before our eyes.

I was very curious to see what Emma Donoghue would do next after the incredible success of "Room". In "The Wonder" she has returned to the past and to another country but still exploring the emotive and powerful issue of parenting, motherhood, the vulnerability of children and the lengths people will go to for the love of a child. The location, era and premise may be worlds away from that of "Room", but this book is as haunting, psychologically thrilling and unforgettable. I loved it. 

Donoghue's writing is powerful, taut and clever. She uses language masterfully and this novel allows her to play with repetition, misinterpretation, literal and metaphorical interpretation, euphemism and ambiguity. I loved the play on words, the double meanings, the difference between what the characters thought they heard and what was said and the sage reminder of how manipulative language can be. Donoghue also celebrates how powerful language can be - not just through its usage by the characters but also through her imagery and skilful prose. This is a book to savour. 

The historical and social context of this novel is fascinating and allows Donoghue to write about rationality and science versus myths and faith. Lib and Anna's family are direct contrasts representing the medical world view versus the spiritual. There are constant contrasts between what is obvious and clear and the different ways in which it is explained through a mythical angle. Lib, our plain speaking, no nonsense nurse and protagonist, is quick to dismiss the religion, prayer and wonder of the family and community although this is attitude is tested and challenged as the novel progresses. 

I liked Lib a lot. At first she seems hard, too clinical, a little arrogant but as the story unfolds and we learn more about her and more about the world in which she operates, the more I liked her strength, perseverance and dedication. It is her thoroughness, her persistence and her diligence while caring for Anna which leads to the dramatic climax. Lib's emotional journey is immense - it is a real awakening and perhaps even a kind of epiphany. I liked this. Obviously the story is about Anna and the mystery surrounding her "wonder" but actually it is much about Lib and the journey she finds herself on. I liked her wry comments, her disparaging responses to the family, her flaws, her angst and her deep hidden secrets. 

There are so many fascinating comments from the characters that reveal attitudes to religion, prayer, women, nursing and mental health that there is almost too much to talk about in this review. On the one hand this is a gripping, powerful, mesmerising read about a young girl and a nurse, on the other hand it is a complex novel about duty, negligence, stories, parenting, manipulation and guilt. On the one hand the reader is absorbed in trying to solve the puzzle as to how Anna has survived with no food for four months; it is a crime story, a mystery, a thriller. On the other hand it is a novel about the stories we tell each other and how easily these stories, warnings, rituals and scripture can be misunderstood or abused. 

I enjoyed the shadow of Florence Nightingale whose ominous presence was felt on some of the pages. I thought her characterisation was original and intriguing. Lib's own character was so formed by the opinions and teachings of Nightingale it made a dynamic contrast with the local Doctor of the tiny town in which Lib finds herself attempting to carry out medical duties. I think Lib was a great choice of protagonist as she is so different from what I expected. She is fierce and "blasphemous". She emphasises the differences in culture between Ireland and England at this time and captures the tensions that existed politically and socially between the two countries through her character and interaction with the Irish characters. 

Donoghue's evocation of 1850s Ireland was excellent and it was impossible not to feel the dampness of the peat, the darkness of the earth and the hold of superstition, prayer and liturgy over the community. 

I liked that every character had a motive - and not always a very worthy one. Even Lib has a questionable motive at the beginning. Each character appears to want to help Anna but actually their search for the truth behind her 'wonder' is avoiding their own personal search for truth, answers and acceptance. In their attempts to uncover the truth behind what is happening in the O'Donnell household, Lib, Byrne, the O'Donnells and Anna have to confront their own hidden secrets and fears and face some painful truths.  

Just as with "Room" when my eyes could barely read the words fast enough and I kept forgetting to breathe, "The Wonder" is equally breathtaking. It is thought provoking, multilayered and gripping. It is a fantastic psychological thriller and quite frankly, a real wonder. 

The Wonder is published by Picador in September 2016.


Emma Donoghue


Emma is the youngest of eight children of Frances and Denis Donoghue. She attended Catholic convent schools in Dublin, apart from one year in New York at the age of ten. In 1990 she earned a first-class honours BA in English and French from University College Dublin, and in 1997 a PhD (on the concept of friendship between men and women in eighteenth-century English fiction) from the University of Cambridge. Since the age of 23, Donoghue has earned her living as a full-time writer. After years of commuting between England, Ireland, and Canada, in 1998 she settled in London, Ontario, where she lives with her partner and their son and daughter.

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